In pursuit of what she idealizes as a maximally inclusive feminism, Merve Emre documents how people are often dehumanized by their encounters with assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). As she does so, she shifts the historical ground under our feet, shooting us into an immanent future in which ARTs have become quotidian (at least in industrialized nations that do not circumscribe their use). Although ARTs are shown again and again in her ethnographies to be not only emotionally fraught but often physically dangerous, Emre asks the reader to embrace these technologies not because of what they have already enabled, but because of what they ideally promise: radical alteration of the culturally dominant conception of reproduction as natural.
In calling for a radically different future, Emre ask to recognize that all reproduction is assisted. Whether one gives birth in a hospital or at home; whether one delivers with the aid of midwives and doulas or doctors and nurses; whether one conceives using one’s own sperm or sperm that has been purchased or gifted; whether one gestates embryos comprised of one’s own eggs or ones that have been removed by laparoscopy from someone else’s ovaries; whether one uses cryopreserved genetic materials or fresh; whether one gestates one’s children in one’s own womb or pays to have them gestated in someone else’s—in all these cases, reproductive technology, medical know-how, and the ready availability of biotechnology and biological products allow for human reproduction to bust out of the heterosexual matrix and the confines of the naturalized sex/gender system upon which this matrix has been historically predicated.
To be clear, arguments about what ARTs might ideally afford LGBT people and singles are in no way new. As Emre notes, Shulamith Firestone launched (and was excoriated for launching) a closely related argument in praise of artificial wombs in the 1970s. And there have been many other feminist thinkers—stretching back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the early part of the twentieth century and forward to Octavia Butler at its end—who have dared to imagine forms of human reproduction that defy heterosexual, sex, and gender norms. When placed in historical context, emergent transfeminist arguments about the need to think about reproduction from the vantage point of people who “are not and do not want to be accommodated under the label ‘woman’ to reproduce” ought to be recognized as presaged by a long tradition of dissent that encompasses Firestone’s contentious offering as well as those made by numerous scholars, writers, and activists over more than a century. Like Emre, earlier thinkers were concerned with problems of access and distribution of reproductive resources (including health care and child care), and with imagination of worlds in which all beings who wish to reproduce might do so regardless of sex, gender, familial context, and access to resources (or lack thereof).
What is missing from Emre’s call to consciousness about the basic humanity of the desire to be assisted in the quest to reproduce as one wishes is a sustained examination of the racial politics of the call. In Emre’s vignettes, racialization of the reproductive body is unaddressed. In fact, Emre never engages with the racial dynamics that subtend the stories told, the long history of racialized reproductive labor and its extraction (beginning with chattel slavery and the practice of slave breeding), or the implicit racism that too often characterizes the pursuit of genetically-related progeny today.
Much as I would like to argue for universal access to ARTs and the denaturalization of reproduction that such access might ideally portend, I believe we must temper our eagerness and not only philosophically examine but practically contend with the cost, expressed in racial terms, of the use of ARTs. Put otherwise, I am compelled to consider what Emre’s call entails in real time—what Walter Benjamin once called “the time of the now”—for people of color not only in the United States and other industrialized nations, but also for those who have already been or are currently being exploited within the context of a global economy structured by the racialized division of labor, including all forms of reproductive labor from nannying to surrogacy, from egg vending to house cleaning.
As is well documented, those who avail themselves of reproductive labor, ARTs included, are overwhelmingly wealthy white people who reside in the global North. Just as whites, whether cisgender or trans, queer or straight, disproportionately use ARTs to reproduce genetically-related progeny, their prioritization of genetic relatedness is set against a backdrop of a world in which race is the modality through which class is lived. Meanwhile, people of color, especially in the United States, far less frequently seek access to ARTs, not only because of the expense but because they maintain a longstanding and entirely rational suspicion of the racism that has informed and continues to inform the development of biomedical technologies and reproductive medicine. Think back to the so-called Tuskegee Experiment in which black men were deprived of treatment for syphilis so the disease’s effects could be studied; or recall the abuse of Henrietta Lack’s cancerous ovarian cells (or Hela cells) by the white doctors who first realized their medical and commercial value; and remember that Marion J. Simms’s development of modern gynecology was based on surgical experiments that he conducted on the vaginas and uteruses of enslaved women, to whom Simms administered no anesthesia before commencing to cut and burn them.
It is, as Emre concludes, foolhardy for feminists to place the natural at the center of our conversations about reproductive justice when there exists the possibility that ARTs could denaturalize reproduction and bring about a collective understanding of all reproduction as assisted. However, it is equally foolhardy to celebrate denaturalization of reproduction as the basis for a maximally inclusive feminism without considering how the use of ARTs has been and continues to subtend racialized reproductive extraction. This extraction, in turn, has been and continues to be calibrated to the racialized sensibilities that inform the valuation of reproductive commodities (eggs, sperm, gestational wombs, and babies) that are available in a global marketplace.
In a world in which eggs and sperm can be readily purchased, white eggs and sperm are the most sought after and highly valued. When supposedly black or Asian sperm and eggs are requested by consumers, their scarcity often renders them prohibitively expensive. Consequently, routine purchase and use of supposedly white genetic materials not only shores up the reproduction of whiteness, in many instances the purchase of whiteness is incentivized. The use of raced (and the consumer mistakenly imagines racially identifiable) materials is rationalized as a function of the desire for offspring who will appear to be racial kin. However, in an inversion of this racialized market logic, gestational (or surrogate) labor is increasingly outsourced by white people to women of color residing in the Global South. This is because ARTs can now make the race of the womb that gestates a custom-made embryo irrelevant. In India, and more recently in Mexico, Thailand, and elsewhere, surrogate arrangements increasingly use women of color to gestate and deliver baby-products to consumers at a fraction of the cost of similar arrangements in the United States.
Finally, it must be noted that Emre’s idea of a maximally inclusive feminism predicated on equal access to ARTs never compasses critique of the genetic fetishism—the paradoxical naturalization of the desire to reproduce genetically related progeny––that is central to each of the reproductive quests that Emre’s ethnographic vignettes detail. In short, Emre never addresses the disturbing fact that use of ARTs is always undergirded by the idea that it not only makes sense but is ethical to procure genetic relatedness in one’s offspring simply because it can be pursued.
It is true that today we live in a world in which we ought, ideally, to praise the forms of denaturalized reproduction that ARTs afford. But it is also true that we live in a world in which racialized reproductive extraction is historically embedded in and continues to inform our quotidian practice. Such twinned realizations lead me to consider not only that we ought to remove structural impediments that prevent all from accessing reproductive assistance, but also that we ought to first tackle head on the racist dynamics—including genetic fetishism—that the removal of such impediments can legitimate.
Alys Eve Weinbaum is Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is author of Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought and the forthcoming book The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History.
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